Prejudice and fear of the unknown lie at the heart of Neil LaBute’s play “Fat Pig.” The play sits nicely alongside LaBute’s other acerbic and controversial works, “In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends & Neighbors” and “The Shape of Things.” The writer/director’s work could single-handedly serve as an antidote to all the cavity-inducing sweetness of the romantic comedy genre.
Labute’s wars between the sexes do not end well, and – even with the few tender moments along the way – the battle never quite recedes too much into the background. Instead, the characters seem to be in a constant skirmish over their own souls.
The vitriol between lovers, friends, co-workers and exes consistently destroys any goodwill that might struggle to break through. In Labute’s eyes, human existence is a solitary and lonely state.
“Fat Pig” begins in a cafeteria, and even before the play begins, Helen (Kirsten Vangsness), a pretty yet overweight woman, eats at a counter while the audience files in. The direction by Jo Bonney immediately confronts the audience with our own and society’s judgments of witnessing a pretty, young woman eat unapologetically and with enjoyment, in a way that manages to seem subversive.
The meet-cute begins immediately when Tom (Scott Wolf) stands next to Helen, and they have an instant rapport. Tom’s a good-looking guy who has gotten everything in life a little too easily, and much to his surprise, finds himself enjoying Helen’s company.
She both throws him off guard with her saucy questions and direct manner and also manages to put him at ease with her self-deprecation and genuine interest. As Tom explains later to his co-worker and ex, Jeannie (Andrea Anders), “I like who I am when I’m with her.”
Of course nothing in this burgeoning relationship is simple as Tom struggles to convince himself that appearances are not the only thing that matter in life. Like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as It Gets, Tom struggles to be a better man. Unfortunately, as this is a Labute play, the struggle is an extremely uphill one, and Tom is ill-equipped to climb it.
With no help from his surroundings, all set in his upscale office workplace, which seems to infer society at large, Tom doesn’t have the courage or internal strength to be the lone man standing against the tide of public opinion.
His callow friend and co-worker Carter (the excellent Chris Pine), seems to be the bad devil on his shoulder pulling him toward his basest and most shallow self. The good angel, Helen, is no match for the entirety of the office, which wholeheartedly turns her into a joke that Tom seems helpless to ignore.
One of the quirky things that Helen does is watch old war movies like Porkchop Hill and Von Ryan’s Express. The implication of these films – the courage of men – mocks Tom’s meekness in the face of others’ disapproval. Tom is the kind of man that caves to any external pressure like he’s stuck in a perpetual elementary school.
“Fat Pig” makes the “attractive” characters more trapped than the outcasts. At least the outsiders are released from the obligations of society even as they are discarded.
An all-around terrific satire with crackling dialogue, funny and smart acting and a provocative plot, “Fat Pig” provides plenty of food for thought. Pine especially, with the most devastating dialogue, embodies the worst qualities of man in a way that manages to be both true and painful, while still getting laughs.
Audrey Skirball Theater at Geffen Playhouse is located at 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Los Angeles. For information, call (310) 208-5454 or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.